Saturday, April 16, 2011

Happy Birthday Jane Kurtz - April 17

Happy Birthday Jane Kurtz - April 17

Photo credit Jonathan Goering
"I grew up mostly in Ethiopia and in a big family --eventually five girls and one boy-- so birthdays were pretty practical and low-key, but I do have a sweet memory of the year I turned ten.  That fall, I'd gone off to boarding school in the city of Addis Ababa. (My family lived in the countryside, far from the capital city, where I spent days outside, a big part of the inspiration from my Lanie stories published by American Girl last year.) Since my birthday was in April, I had no hope of spending it with my family. I only saw them at Christmas time and in the summer months. But my mom figured how to get a family who lived in Addis Ababa to make a cake (WITH frosting) and bring it to the school -- an the exciting thing is that there was a Lifesaver candy circling each candle." 

After reading this response to my email, asking Jane Kurtz to share a birthday memory, I wanted to know more of her story.  I learned that she was born in Portland, Oregon and moved to Ethiopia at the age of two with her parents who worked for a Presbyterian church.  Her mother taught her at home until grade 4 and then she went to the boarding school in Addis Ababa.  Her return to the United States wasn't until college.  She badly missed Ethiopia for many years. It was the "homesickness" and having children of her own that lead her to writing about her childhood experiences in the form of children's books.  (FAQ at

This week we enjoyed Fire on the Mountain, an Ethiopia folktale Jane Kurtz remembered hearing during her childhood and Trouble, a traditional tale about a boy from Ethiopia's northern neighbor, Eritrea. My children loved hearing me stumble over some of the new vocabulary - injera, gebeta, wat, and masinko. In a 2000 interview with Cynthia Leitich-Smith on Cynsations, Kurtz describes these tales as "great stories" that can be used to "illustrate the kind of behavior that is important and valuable and honorable." In Fire on a Mountain, Alemayu watches over a rich man's cows and observes the rich man every day not giving much of a care to his servants.  When Alemayu succeeds later in life, he learned much from watching his self-centered master and instead treats his servants with appreciation and respect.  In Trouble, Tekleh's father gives him a gebeta (mancala) board to keep him out of trouble. However, Tekleh almost immediately loses the game board.  It appears that the gebeta board only got him in more trouble, but it is with great generosity displayed by Tekleh that ultimately leads to him finally catching a break.

I wanted to make gebeta boards with my children.  A wooden board was out of the question because of my lack of skills in carpentry and with my son being prone to accidents (I think we have gone through a box of band-aids already this Spring!).  As I was researching the game I saw a picture of a game board made out of pottery.  My first thought was to head to the store to buy Model Magic by Crayola (in hind sight this might have been worth the money).  However, I decided to make our own homemade clay.

We mixed 2 cups of flour, 3/4 cup salt, 3/4 cup water.
I honestly don't remember where I found this recipe. But, similar recipes are here.
My children rolled out the clay dough.
They used spoons to push down the dough to make the indentations.
They had to watch how much they pushed down so they didn't push
all the way through.
After making 14 holes, the dough had to dry for over a day outside
in the sunshine and it probably could have used another day of drying.
But, I couldn't hold them off from painting any longer.
We used all-purpose craft paint.  They choose to paint the holes a different
color than the rest of the gebeta board.
Overall, the project was a success because they had fun. The clay dough
did take forever to dry and it cracked slightly.
While we waited for the paint to dry we played Mancala using an egg carton and
two plastic food containers. We learned the rules here.
I continued to dry the gebeta boards on a cookie rack and glued a foam backing on the bottom to provide stability. My children counted out 48 beads to use with the board, but you could also use beans.
When I first mentioned making the gebeta boards with my daughter she was initially uninterested. However, she admitted today, "You know when you said we were going to make gebeta boards I thought it was going to be dumb. But, it was pretty fun."  She also said, "Can we make a masinko (a one-stringed fiddle with a diamond-shaped sound box)?"  I told her, "Unfortunately, we have made gebeta boards and will be making injera tonight. The masinko will have to be for another day."

Her feelings about Ethiopian cuisine were not quite as positive as the gebeta board experience.  When I researched injera, "a large, spongey pancake used as bread at most meals in Eritrea and Ethiopia," I thought it would feasible after finding a recipe on The Science of Bread website.  I only needed Teff flour which I found at a local healthy food store.  The injera is both something you eat and use as an eating utensil.  So, I needed a Ethiopian dish to eat along with our injera.  I found some recipes on BetumiBlog and really wanted to try wat, but there were so many ingredients that I didn't have so I settled on Kik Pea Alecha.

This tasty goodness was eventually blended and served with the injera.
My first attempt at injera was semi-successful. 
When the kids ate the injera they smiled.
But, that was not the case with the kik pea alecha.
I had pizza in the oven as a backup plan!
I hope you are still with me on this lengthy birthday celebration for Jane Kurtz because I need to mention Ethiopia Reads, an effort to provide books to the children of Ethiopia. Ethiopia Reads began when Yohannes Gebregorgis, a San Francisco librarian, contacted Jane Kurtz via email after reading her books.  He wanted her to help him, "Get books to Ethiopian children." You can read an depth article about Ethiopia Reads published in Good Housekeeping in 2007 from Jane Kurtz's website.  I was amazed that the first task for Ethiopia Reads was to publish Silly Mammo, Ethiopia's first English/Amarhic book.  Now the effort has moved beyond publishing books to providing libraries to give the children more consistent direct access to books.  Keep up to date with Jane Kurtz's efforts by following her blog.

In closing, Jane Kurtz provided one additional birthday memory:

The only other birthday that stands out...for a similar reason...was when my mom and dad visited me on my birthday the year my first son was born.  They brought me a favorite family dish, orange spirals, with them.  When my son was born two days later, I felt such comfort to have my mom's rolls in my cupboard.

Jane, thank you so much for sharing your birthday memories.  We hope you have some yummy treats tomorrow! Also, congratulations on receiving the 2011 Kerlan Award.

Jane Kurtz has written many books that are not about her experiences in Ethiopia:


1. Jane Kurtz's Website - More about Gebata (Mancala), FAQ, Reader's Theatre - 2 Books!
2. Jane Kurtz's Blog - She is very active and up-to-date
3. Jane Kurtz Interview - Cynsations, Patricia Newman, Five on Friday
4. Jane Kurtz on Twitter
5. Video Interview - Books on the House
6. Ethiopia Reads Website
7. Jane Kurtz talks about Lanie, American Girl - Cynsations
8. Lanie's American Girl Website


  1. I love how you incorported the Ethiopian meal with the book! Fantastic job!

  2. Thanks Stephanie! It was a great experience for me and the kids!

  3. I love the things I learn from the blog. This time I learned about a totally new country! I had no idea Eritrea was even a country! Thank you for always teaching us something new, and doing wonderful things with your kids at the same time!

  4. Wow, this is amazing! Love the gebetas! I can't wait to share your site with my teaching and mom friends! Thanks for sharing your egg carton mancalas on my linky @


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